The Chilcot inquiry was set up to whitewash the Labour government’s lies over the 2003 Iraq war. But it isn’t all going to plan.
The inquiry team is the embodiment of what the establishment refer to as a “safe pair of hands”. The chair is a former adviser for the intelligence services. Another member wrote a speech for Tony Blair justifying “humanitarian” war.
Nobody in the inquiry cares to ask the Iraqis what they think, and no politicians will be prosecuted at the end of it. Nonetheless, the contradictions and contortions of the government over the invasion of Iraq are seeping out.
Two approaches have emerged from various politicians, spin doctors and lawyers. The first is to brazen it out with the “we did nothing wrong” line. The other is to blame somebody else.
In the brazen camp sit Blair’s spin doctors, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. Campbell is a teller of stories—contradictory and mutually incompatible. He told one version of events in his rather long diaries, another to the Hutton inquiry, and now a third at the Chilcot inquiry.
This leads to absurdities. Campbell stands by the dodgy dossier, including the nonsense about Iraq being able to attack Britain at 45 minutes notice.
Even chief spook John Scarlett, who “wrote” the dossier, admits it’s flawed. But not Campbell. He says no one sexed up the dossier in its countless rewrites. Campbell claims never to have been in the room when the rewrites he knew nothing about weren’t happening.
Powell said that he joked with Campbell about how the Evening Standard newspaper would react to the dossier. The Standard reacted as it was meant to, putting the 45 minutes claim on its front page.
Cabinet ministers have led the “not me, guv” school. Former defence minister Geoff Hoon has frequently been portrayed as a bit of an idiot.
He used his appearance at the inquiry to reinforce that perception, presenting himself as being vaguely aware of what was going on, but not expecting anyone to actually tell him anything.
This had the advantage of distancing him from all the key decisions about the war. His advisers no doubt told him, “Better a fool than a knave.”
In contrast, Jack Straw said he was at the centre of everything—“If I had refused support, the UK’s participation in the military action would not in practice have been possible.”
Straw had a plan, lots of plans. Though after hearing him it’s not clear if anyone other than Straw understood them.
Especially when he says things like, “You’d think you’d got a kind of a deal, and then it would go back into this sort of extraordinary sort of beehive of the American system and you would have to wait until some of them, the bees, sniffed an odour from the great hive.”
Straw stressed how hard it was for him to support the war. He hinted that anything difficult should be directed at someone else. He even suggested that the inquiry should ask a question to Robin Cook, who has been dead for five years.
But former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull suggested that Straw had kept his doubts deeply hidden. He said, “This didn’t look like a man who was privately thinking, ‘This whole thing is flawed. I just don’t think this adds up’.”
Underlying all this is the chaos of the last days of the Labour government. Blair is fighting a rearguard action to defend his reputation.
Brown’s people will say that it was all very difficult, but everything bad that happened was because of Blair. The government’s lawyers will reveal that they thought the war was illegal, but could not stop it.
Most witnesses will say that they wrestled with their consciences and their consciences lost.
The inquiry gives us an insight into the world of lies and hypocrisy at the heart of the government. Decisions are made on sofas, not in parliament or the cabinet. Those in the loop make up lies to get the result they want and the outcome is the death of hundreds of thousands.
The Chilcot inquiry will not hold the guilty to account for that.